Wilfred M. McClay: Lincoln the Great ... Though He Didn’t Look That Way at the Time

Roundup: Talking About History

[Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America. He is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and has been a member of the National Council on the Humanities since 2002.]

The American Civil War and the enigmatic man whose election in 1860 precipitated it hold an inexhaustible interest for us. Thousands of volumes on both subjects have streamed out of publishing houses in the past century and a half, covering every conceivable topic and vantage point, from arcana of military operations to probing, and occasionally preposterous, efforts to explore Lincoln’s psyche. Nor does this flow seem to be diminishing. We are about to launch into a grand national celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth that may eclipse all such previous commemorations, and will for a time render that name as ubiquitous in our thoughts as it is on our currency.

For a country said to be uninterested in its past, this would seem to be a giant exception to the rule. Yet the deeper reasons for such enduring, even obsessive, interest in these subjects, permeating both the scholarly world and the general public, are not immediately obvious. There are few if any decisive new facts remaining to be unearthed, few glaring lacunae in the historical record crying out to be filled, few interpretive gabits that have not been tried at least once. There continue to be bands of Lincoln assassination enthusiasts who find it irresistible to speculate about what did or did not happen those fateful days in the spring of 1865. But they don’t explain the passionate interest in the man, any more than the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays derives from the rather tiresome search to ascertain their “true” author.

No, the lure of the Civil War is that it taps into something far deeper, a vein of powerful meanings and buried feelings that run beneath the surface of everyday American life. Even Civil War buffs and hobbyists, who pride themselves on their encyclopedic knowledge of battlefield tactics and wartime paraphernalia, know that the object of their passion is something fundamentally mysterious, precious, even sacred. And, notwithstanding the battalion of ersatz Abes that emerge on Presidents’ Day to sell refrigerators and used cars, there is a feeling of instinctive reverence that extends to the sixteenth president himself. For when it comes to the Civil War, and the leader who successfully prosecuted it, we somehow feel ourselves drawing close to the very core of American national identity. That is why these subjects command our attention. We cannot help but pick them up in our hands and turn them round and round, searching their many facets for confirmation, or for a hint of something fresh and new. These are large subjects that contain multitudes.

With Lincoln himself, the picture is particularly complex. Partly that is because popular perceptions of him are as exalted and outsized as the gigantic marble likeness of him inside the Lincoln Memorial, that national temple of the American civil faith. Such images of Lincoln as demigod do not jibe easily with the more human Lincoln that we think we know—awkward, melancholic, compulsively joke-telling, conniving, unhappily married, vulgar, fiercely ambitious, and superlatively eloquent uncommon-common man. In fact, as historian Merrill Peterson has shown, there have been many Lincolns over the years, some of them archetypal—the Savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the Man of the People, the Self-Made Man—but others very much tied to their moment....
Read entire article at NEH.gov (dated Jan.-Feb 2009)

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